Sporting travel to Turin today ahead of a daunting Champions League appointment against Juventus on Wednesday evening.
Beaten finalists in two of the last three seasons in the world’s greatest club competition, and 6-time Italian champions, Juve boast scintillating star players such as strike duo Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuaín.
However, the “Old Lady” have not been as dominant this season, and come into the match on the back of a rare home defeat on Saturday, 2-1 to Lazio. Juventus expert Rav Gopal, founder of Juvefc.com tells PortuGOAL what Sporting can expect.
Juventus’s results this season have been worse than usual. Are they not quite the force they have been in the last few years?
In all honesty, it feels like a season of transition in some ways. The departure of Leo Bonucci has led to certain changes in the playing style while losing Dani Alves on a free also meant a rethink at right-back and an overall drop in quality in the defence. For me, the strength of Juventus over the last 6 seasons has been the ability to build from the back and the cohesion, movement and awareness of the back 3 who worked seamlessly as one unit. We’re still finding our way in some regards and the change in personnel is going to take a little time to take hold, so there may be some games where we find ourselves lacking, like the 2-1 defeat to Lazio at the weekend.
The 3-5-2 that Conte pioneered at the club gave way to a 4-3-1-2 and eventually became a 4-2-3-1 formation that relied on players like Mandzukic and Alves to play in the wide positions while not neglecting their defensive duties - The addition of ‘natural’ wingers like Douglas Costa and Federico Bernardeschi is great for the long-term, but once again, it’s going to take time until we see the best of them in the starting XI. That’s a long-winded way of saying it might take a while until we start delivering consistently. Traditionally, Allegri’s teams don’t hit their stride until the end of the year/start of the new year, so we’ll have to wait and see where we are by then.
Ones to watch – who are Juventus’s star men?
Dybala has stepped up in a big way, taking the ‘10’ shirt, shouldering more responsibility for making things happen in attack and creating chances for the team overall. He’s the obvious one to keep an eye on along with Miralem Pjanic. The Bosnian midfielder seemed to struggle last season which wasn’t his fault. The shift in formation left him isolated at times and he struggled to have an influence on the game. Signing Blaide Matuidi has given him more freedom this season, so he’s been able to create more directly and really pull the strings behind the attack. It’s made all the difference.
Rodrigo Bentancur also enjoyed a great start to the season. He arrived with little fanfare but Allegri thrust him in at the deep end, handing him his first start against Barcelona. Despite the result, he was one of the few positives on the night, and he’s only grown in confidence as the season’s continued. He’s a tidy and intelligent player, definitely one to keep an eye on in the long term. I have high hopes for Bernardeschi who has been limited to a handful of appearances from the bench.
Strong points/weak points – what must Sporting beware of and what can they exploit?
The attack and midfield look primed at the moment. Higuaín is starting to get more service, especially when Bernardeschi and Cuadrado/Costa play, and with Dybala behind him, there are more options up front. It’s the strongest front line that we’ve had in a while and they will become more ruthless with time. Sporting need to stay tight at the back and the full-backs need to push back against the wingers.
The weaknesses for me are in defence. Barzagli is great in the big games, but he is getting on in years and has lost a yard or two. Chiellini is injury prone but always raises his game for the CL matches. Daniele Rugani is being used sparingly in CL for some reason while Medhi Benatia makes the simple things look very complicated some times. At RB, we decided to leave out Stephan Lichtsteiner from the CL squad while Mattia De Sciglio and Benedict Howedes are both injured. It’s not an ideal situation and I think we really need to find a CB pairing and stick with it, rather than continuing to alternate. We seem to be more susceptible to counter attacks and I think it might take a while before the defence returns to its absolute best.
Formation and playing style – what system do Juventus usually play? Would you describe them generically as an attacking team or a defensive team?
The formation will almost certainly be 4-2-3-1 as it’s what we’ve worked towards with our summer transfers. I think we could have been referred to as a defensive side at one point, but that has changed markedly over the past few years under Allegri and especially this year. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a season of change in many ways, losing a cornerstone of the defence and a key component of the previous playing style (Bonucci) and transitioning to a more direct and attacking style, using the pace of players like Costa and Bernardeschi with Dybala given the freedom to drift from the centre to the right/left etc.
What are the local press saying about this Champions League group? Do they take qualification for the knockouts as a certainty?
There’s always very high expectations for Juventus. Two CL finals in three seasons has set the bar even higher for Allegri and players, so not qualifying from the group would be a disaster. I think the team and management are highly respectful of the opposition, but they will be aiming for the top spot and nothing less, despite having Barca and Sporting in the group.
Mood in the camp – judging by player/coach quotes regarding this game, do you think Juventus come into the match in a confident frame of mind?
It’s not at its best. The slipups against Atalanta where we let go of a 2-goal lead, followed by our first home defeat in two years at the hands of Lazio has left things feeling flat. In a situation like this, I would hope to see us react and get a confident victory over Sporting to restore a little faith ahead of a tough run of games. The players and managers always say the same thing about the Champions League and qualifying from the group, so it’s always the same words, rehashed. It’s cliched, but I want to see us do all our talking on the pitch by delivering a good, consistent performance for 90 minutes.
What do you think the result of the match will be?
I think a slender Juventus win, perhaps 2-1
Our thanks to Ravi, who you can follow on twitter @Juvefdotcom.